Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Last 10 Movies I Watched

Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, 2015, USA, 141 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
Writer-director Joss Whedon’s distinctive voice is largely drowned out in the rush to tie together the increasingly convoluted strands of the Marvel cinematic universe in his second valiant attempt to shoehorn in six movies worth of plot into one action blockbuster. The conflict with an artificially intelligent menace (voiced effectively by James Spader) provides a reasonably diverting main storyline, but everything feels too rushed to have any lasting dramatic impact. The CGI-drenched action sequences feel downright tame compared to the epic setpieces in Mad Max: Fury Road and Furious 7. It’s telling that the only time that the film truly comes to life is during one of its few moments of downtime, when the plain-clothed superheroes are sharing jokes at a party. C+

Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges, 1955, USA, 81 min.)
Viewed on Turner Classic Movies       Second Viewing
John Sturges’ pulpy tale of small town hostility is the ultimate tough guy movie, seamlessly blending elements of westerns, suspense films, and noir into one tightly coiled package. Spencer Tracy is a one-handed WWII veteran who comes to the tight-knit community of Black Rock in search of a relative of one of his war buddies, but finds that the residents of the town are willing to go to violent lengths to cover up a horrific town secret. The film is constantly threatening to explode into outright hysteria, but Sturges mostly keeps a lid on full-blown action until a nail-biting climax, giving the whole film a marvelous tension. Black Rock’s citizens are brought to vivid life by a who’s who of great ‘50s character actors, including Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, and Walter Brennan. A

Furious 7 (James Wan, 2015, USA, 137 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
That Furious 7 is simple to follow even for those of us who are new to the Fast & Furious franchise is less an indictment of the series’ brain-dead storytelling than it is a testament to the clarity of its mission statement: to be as loud and dumb and explosively entertaining as possible. The shallow characterizations and frenzied (if unusually clearly arranged) MTV-style editing obviously place a ceiling on the film’s quality level, but there’s no denying that the enormous, lengthy, ridiculously expensive looking action setpieces are tons of fun. B-

Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad, 2014, USA, 120 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
Bill Pohlad’s look at the life of Brian Wilson smartly sidesteps many biopic clich├ęs by employing an interestingly fractured narrative structure that cuts back and forth between two distinct periods of its subject’s life. A young Wilson (Paul Dano) following his wandering muse while crafting Pet Sounds and Smile, while the Wilson of the ‘80s (John Cusack, surprisingly effective playing against type) struggles with mental issues, and the constant cross-cutting between the two periods gives the film a melancholic power that would be lacking in a more generic rise and fall narrative. B

Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015, Australia, 120 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
Mad Max: Fury Road runs a full two hours, and there are probably fewer than five minutes that don’t involve something blowing up, getting shot at, or crashing spectacularly. This is the most ferocious, relentless, and visually impressive action film of recent memory. George Miller never lets the pace slow down enough for the viewer to question the film’s one-dimensional characters or its shallow attempt at feminism, but frankly the action choreography is so mind blowing that theme and narrative seem almost entirely beside the point. Miller executed as much of the action as possible with live stunts and practical effects rather than CGI, but the carnage is so outrageous that it often feels like a live-action Looney Tunes cartoon, and the results are spellbinding. B+

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird, 2011, USA, 133 min.)
Viewed On Demand    First Viewing
The fourth Mission Impossible film is the most gleefully over the top to date. Many of the big action sequences are legitimately staggering, the best being an absolutely insane scene in which Tom Cruise’s heroic spy free climbs the outside of the Burj Khalifa tower, the world’s tallest building. (The scene was filmed without a stunt double, and on IMAX cameras for extra vertigo-inducing clarity). The film grinds to a halt during the moments when it tries to be anything more than an excuse to put the charismatic Cruise in spectacular danger – the story is purely generic, and the attempts at pathos don’t connect at all – but as a pure action spectacle it’s fantastic. B

The Red Shoes (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1948, UK, 133 min.)
Viewed on Turner Classic Movies       Second Viewing
Powell & Pressburger’s classic deserves its reputation as the greatest dance film of all time simply for its mesmerizing centerpiece, a 20-minute ballet adaptation of Hans Christen Andersen’s fairy tale of the same name, which employs a stunning array of surreal cinematic effects that suggest what one of Disney’s classic animated films would look like in live action. It’s one of the very greatest scenes in cinema history, and it’s so dazzling that the compelling story of artistic obsession that supports it is often unjustly overlooked. Jack Cardiff’s amazing Technicolor compositions remain the high water mark for color cinematography. A

The Spy Who Loved Me (Lewis Gilbert, 1977, UK, 125 min.)
Viewed on DVD          Second Viewing
The tenth James Bond film feels, for better and for worst, like a “greatest hits” package for the series. It delivers on all of the required 007 trademarks but lacks a clear identity of its own. While it’s understandable that the producers would want to follow the unpopular Man with the Golden Gun (1974) with a back to basics Bond picture, the eccentric campiness of most of the Roger Moore era is missed here. That said, the formula does work, and The Spy Who Loved Me is never less than entertaining. Jaws (Richard Kiel) remains the series’ best henchman, Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” is one of the finest Bond theme songs, and a suspenseful scene set in the pyramids of Egypt is a cool travelogue moment. B-

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang, 1933, Germany, 121 min.)
Viewed on DVD          Latest of Many Viewings
In many respects this is the ultimate Fritz Lang film, combining the epic storytelling of his silent films with the boldly modern aesthetic of his sound debut M (1931). Liberally borrowing elements from his previous work, Lang creates an unforgettable nightmare world of inexplicable spy rings and dank insane asylums. A dizzying array of pulp sensations are packed into the enjoyable convoluted narrative, and while the plot machinations rarely make logical sense, they are invariably delivered with the type of hypnotic intensity that only Lang could conjure. The remarkable in-camera special effect of the specter of Dr. Mabuse planting evil ideas in a doctor’s head has to be seen to be believed. A

To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942, USA, 99 min.)
Viewed on Hulu Plus              First Viewing
Ernst Lubitsch’s controversial comedy is as irreverent about World War II as Inglourious Basterds (2009) is – but the difference is that this film actually came out while the war was still going on. Jack Benny and Carole Lombard play Polish actors in Nazi-occupied Warsaw who use the skills of their trade to infiltrate the German troops. Lubitsch unsurprisingly caught some flak for poking fun at a serious threat, but his classy, casual approach to comedy – the famous “Lubitsch touch” – gives the film layers of emotion and humanism that one wouldn’t normally expect from dark comedy. B+